The Man Who Saved the World tells the remarkable story of Stanislav Petrov, who in 1983 made a decision, based on gut instinct, that may well have saved every life on the planet. Towards the end of the Cold War, the Soviet nuclear defence system glitched, appearing to show US warheads heading for the Soviet Union. Petrov went against protocol – a decision that could’ve landed him in trouble – and reported it as a false alarm. He saved millions of lives, but hardly anyone knows his name.
This film, which blends documentary footage and recreations of events in the 1980s, is director Peter Anthony’s attempt to offer what he describes as “my truth about ‘the man who saved the world’”. The word “my” is key here, because although the film tells a true story, and a gripping one, its mix of shooting styles means that it is intended to be an interpretation of the truth, rather than a telling of it.
The thrust of the narrative is a journey Petrov (playing himself) makes to the US, accompanied by his translator Galina (also herself). The film establishes a touching relationship between these two, even if their interactions (and those with others) call into question how much of this is really documentary footage, and how much is scripted. There are also cameos from famous US stars, most prominently Kevin Costner, of whom Petrov is a huge fan, and who invites him to his set to celebrate a “real hero”.
Dramatised scenes of Petrov’s decision (in which he is played by Sergey Shnyryov) are effectively done, if a little clichéd. More successful, and surprisingly so, is a short sequence in which Petrov deals with his wife’s (Nataliya Vdovina) cancer after the war. It’s very well acted, and enhances the whole film, drawing parallels between Petrov’s individual life and the decision he made in the Cold War – how we deal with the influence of the past is a big theme, on both a personal and global level.
The film’s overarching anti-bombs message is a little laboured at times, but it would be churlish to criticise this too heavily – the film makes a convincing, if obvious, argument, and does so through a story that is nowhere near as well kno wn as it should be. I found the mix of styles a little disconcerting at times, but The Man Who Saved the World remains an interesting and unique telling of an important story.